Review: ‘Arrival’ a near perfect sci-fi tale

An edited version of this review originally appeared in the ABQ Free Press, and can be viewed here.

Maintaining good communication – whether between governments of countries or two people in a relationship – isn’t always easy. Sometimes the mediation of an outside party is necessary.

For director Denis Villeneuve, it takes a visit aliens for humanity to discover its communicative flaws. At least, that’s the premise of “Arrival,” a film depicting a close encounters of a thrilling kind that takes the audience on a mesmerizing ride as intelligent as it is poignant.

Like some of the best sci-fi, “Arrival” utilizes an outlandish concept to make very relevant comments on the state of humanity, with Villeneuve deconstructing a concept as simple as communication by reminding us of the paranoia that can manifest when we take communication for granted.

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The story is told through the eyes of Louise Banks, a linguistics professor recruited by the military, along with another expert in Jeremy Renner’s (“The Hurt Locker,” “The Avengers”)Ian Donnelly, to help communicate with extra terrestrial beings. We don’t know if these aliens come in peace; all we know is they come via one of 12 pods resembling a slice of fruit in different places around the globe. And every day they hover a few dozen feet above the surface, humanity grows even more weary.

With “Arrival,” Villeneuve begins to cement himself as one of the premiere directors in Hollywood at exploring deep themes through multilayered, provocative stories. Like “Prisoners” and “Sicario,” his latest is a slow-burning escalation towards a mind-bending, tense finish that eventually places a new connotation on its title.

To be clear, this isn’t particularly an alien invasion movie – our visitors never even set foot on Earth – and the audience shouldn’t expect the normal sort of blockbuster action associated with that moniker. These are thrills of a much more subdued kind.

Amy Adams (“Man of Steel,” “American Hustle”) gives a subtle but powerhouse performance as Banks, the ever-anxious but curious expert whose personal ties to the mission anchor themselves in her believable quest to be able to communicate with our visitors. Renner is also terrific in what has to be the most vulnerable role we’ve ever seen him in.

“Arrival” isn’t just thematically astounding; the film is totally immersive, engaging nearly all our senses. Conversations between characters through headsets limit outside noise. We feel as claustrophobic as Banks does when she enters the alien craft in a hazmat suit. The IMAX-worthy camerawork is sweeping and gorgeous, bold in portraying the film’s grand scale. The music is daringly ambiguous too; conveying a tone that is all at once threating and captivating.

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The way “Arrival” plays with light, in particular, provides its own symbolic value. It makes excellent use of a dark, brooding aesthetic, with shadows playing a prominent role. Half-clouded faces and environments tease moral flaws, and the brightness associated with the spaceship’s interior resonates with the film’s central questions: Is language a gift, or a weapon?

In other words, it is very much like Villeneuve’s previous works as far as his focus on the visuals. It’s incredibly well-directed in that regard; all of the film’s elements work closely in tandem to deliver a memorable experience that rivals the best sci-fi of recent years, maybe decades.

 

“Arrival” is rated PG-13 for brief strong language

Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

2016

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Big Problems with Tim Burton’s Big Eyes

Tim Burton’s latest work, Big Eyes, encompasses many stylistic tropes that have become familiar with the quirky visionary. The hit-or-miss director of classics such as Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, and Corpse Bride as well as recent disappointments Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows tackles a story that encompasses some of the more serious themes he has ever worked with.

Unfortunately, Burton’s reputation for being fantastically unique and distinct can’t lift Big Eyes from uneven tones as well as committing one of film’s deadly sins: being frustratingly predictable, and in a manner which is self-aware, while hoping to lure the moviegoer’s attention to its more ostensible qualities.

Big Eyes tells the story – one based on true events – of Margaret and Walter Keane. One is a painter with a deep connection to their work who doesn’t get the attention they deserve, but doesn’t crave. The other is a poser hell-bent on living the celebrity lifestyle at the expense of devaluing the art. I’ll give you one guess as to who is who.

The strength of Big Eyes comes from its unwavering thematic focus. Themes of gender superiority as well as the emotional depth – or lack thereof – of mass-produced art ring consistent throughout the film’s roughly two hour runtime, as well as the question at the forefront of the Keane controversy: is credibility and respect worth the expense of honesty?

Margaret Keane is devoted to her art, but not in the same way as her husband.

Margaret Keane is devoted to her art, but not in the same way as her husband.

However, while the film’s themes and messages are consistent, the tone, unfortunately, is not. Big Eyes without a doubt is of a more serious and grounded nature than some of the more macabre, morbid plots that we are so accustomed to seeing from Burton. As such, Big Eyes has an issue with foregoing the audience’s attention for some stretches, and that is due to its seemingly bipolar script. At times it is humorous and light in spite of the plot, and then the next moment the dialogue and plot turn frighteningly bleak.

That isn’t always an issue in movies; Tim Burton actually does a rather good job of balancing the two in his more memorable works. But shifts in tone occur so jarringly quick in Big Eyes, and with seemingly no precedent as to why, that it’s almost as if the heart of the film dies for a moments only for the wit and humor to act as defibrillator and soon bring it back to life.

The Keane's argue over rights and wrongs of their scandal.

The Keane’s argue over rights and wrongs of their scandal.

The pace of the film, also inconsistent, is a casualty of this. The film begins rather briskly, bounding about the start of its plot rather transparently until you realize our two main characters are married just as we’ve settled into our seats. And then things begin to slow down, and we begin to see Margaret and Walter for what they really are. The slower moments of the film’s middle act are its strongest, when we get to see what makes Amy Adams (American Hustle, Man of Steel, Enchanted) and Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained) so dynamic and commanding.

That is another trait of Big Eyes that helps to keep the ship somewhat afloat – Adams’ and Waltz’s indelible, addicting performances. Adams is endearing yet quietly powerful as Margaret, with big, telling eyes of her own that can’t see through the con-artistry of her husband. With every line and quivering smile, Adams delivers a thoroughly believable and satisfying performance of someone caught in a web of Stockholm’s Syndrome.

Waltz continues to dazzle and amaze, showing a wide range of emotion but in such a way that you know the true Walter Keane when he is let out of the cage. Waltz has built himself a reputable repertoire with award-winning roles while working with Quentin Tarantino, so it really is no wonder he excels in a story by the equally-tantalizing Burton. The German-Austrian actor continues to be one of the most reliable in Hollywood today, and his career should only break out more when millions of moviegoers see him in the next Bond film in November. Don’t be surprised if his unsympathetic and devilish turn in Big Eyes makes him 3-for-3 with the Academy come Oscar night.

It becomes apparent by the film’s third act that the strength of the film worth paying the price of a ticket for has passed, as the only reason for the film to go on any further seems for it to wrap things up. It does so rather disappointingly, leaving much to be desired at the end of our character’s decade-long journey. Burton hesitates to end the film in a way that elevates its messages about the true value of art, instead opting to end things a tad too soon, leaving the audience unmoved.

There is no real surprise at the resolution of Big Eyes, no sense of plot because it all just seems a bit too ordinary of a note to eventually end on for Mr. Burton. Which, coincidentally, may be the biggest surprise of all.

 

 

In a Nutshell

Walter Keane at one point says in Big Eyes that “art should elevate, not pander.” Tim Burton would have done a service to his film had he stuck to that line of dialogue when directing his latest work. Although the film is very much Burton’s, it’s difficult to imagine he prioritized the value of a legitimate ending to his film, and so contradicts the film’s central question: does high art remain high art, when so much focus is on getting people to buy into it?

 

7 / 10 or a potentially memorable film becomes a last-resort option for the holidays.

 

 

Big Eyes is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language

Starring: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz

Directed by Tim Burton

2014

 

 

Oscar Watch

Best Actress – Amy Adams

Best Supporting Actor – Christoph Waltz

Best Score – Danny Elfman

Best Production Design